The following article by Harold Meyerson was originally published in The American Prospect here.
President Biden made a provocative historical assessment in his address yesterday to the National Legislative Conference of the United Auto Workers. (Well, it was provocative to the labor-beat journalists covering the speech who were steeped in labor history.) He referred to the UAW’s formative strike, its sit-in in General Motors’ Flint auto plants in the winter of 1936-1937, hailing it, quite rightly, as the breakthrough for unionizing American industry and creating a mass middle class. We remember that 90-year-old strike, he said (rounding up the years a bit), just as people will remember the strike you just waged against GM, Ford, and Stellantis 90 years from now.
Of course, that constituted flattering his audience, but he then proceeded to make that case by listing what the UAW had just won: restoring annual cost-of-living adjustments, compelling Stellantis to refit and reopen a factory it had declared closed, winning wage hikes of 25 percent to 33 percent, and (dropping his voice suddenly to dramatically enhance its significance) eliminating the two-tier wage system that the companies had compelled the union to accept 15 years ago.
The 800 or so UAW leaders and activists in the room roared, but then, they roared through almost all of Biden’s very effective speech (which, my fellow Bidenologists, he delivered flawlessly, looking very, well, old only when he fiddled with the UAW cap that union president Shawn Fain handed him). It was a populist speech in the traditional economic sense of populist—hailing the return of manufacturing that is a signature goal and fledgling achievement of his administration, decrying free-trade policies of presidents past that enabled corporations to go where labor was cheapest, arguing that it was unions that created the American middle class and the need for powerful unions if we’re to recreate it.
His speech comported with the themes that the UAW’s Fain emphasized in introducing Biden and appears to be emphasizing everywhere he goes: that the UAW’s goal, beginning with its organizing campaigns at the nation’s non-union auto plants, is to politically and economically activate the entire working class. That’s not really been a UAW theme since the presidencies of its postwar leaders: the legendary Walter Reuther and his two Reutherite successors, Leonard Woodcock and Doug Fraser. During their presidencies, of course, the UAW had three times the members (and sometimes more) than it has today; automaking was by most accounts the center of the American economy; and the UAW itself was the anchor tenant in the house of postwar liberalism, using its enormous resources to provide crucial funding to the movements for civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental preservation and mitigation. It still backs progressive movements: In Fain’s speech, he referred to the right to love who one chooses, and in the press gaggle he held following the session, when asked about the immigrants at the border, he said they were, like most immigrants of yore, “desperate” people just seeking a safe and decent life.
But the union is now, aspirationally and commendably, punching above its weight in an America where manufacturing constitutes a much smaller share of the economy than it did in Reuther’s day. And its punching is centered on economics and shifting the balance of class power, as he made clear in explaining why the union had just endorsed Biden for re-election. (During his talk, he showed videos of Biden’s appearance on the union’s picket line, and of Donald Trump’s response during the 40-day strike the union waged against GM in the third year of Trump’s presidency: That screen was blank.)
Right now, as Josh Eidelson’s excellent cover story on Fain in the new issue of BloombergBusinessweek makes clear, Fain is the one labor leader with the credibility and militance to speak as something of a tribune for the nation’s working class. Not since Reuther has a UAW president played that role. But manufacturing now employs just a tenth of the U.S. workforce, far from the nearly 50 percent it employed in Reuther’s day. There’s one other union president—like Fain, also elected by his union’s rank and file; like Fain, coming off a landmark union victory (at UPS); and like Fain, also named Shawn, though he spells it differently—whose union has to follow where the UAW just went if we’re really to roll the union on: the Teamsters’ Sean O’Brien, who has vowed his union will take on Amazon. Logistics, transportation, and retail dwarf manufacturing in today’s economy, and it’s in those sectors where empowering workers will have the greatest and most salutary effect. Seans (or Shawns), go to! Joe will have your back.